Guest Post: Seeking to Understand the Rise, Fall, and Loss of Young Pastors by Robert Stewart

Bob was born to medical missionary parents in Burundi, Africa.  The father of six, he and his pastoral counselor wife, Shari, share a psychiatric practice in Louisville, KY and have long worked in the support and care of missionaries and pastors both here and abroad.

A hundred years from now I’m sure that our descendants will know about the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-21 just as all of us (or a lot of us, at least) remember tales of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1917-18.  And by then, hopefully, the great political, cultural, and religious polarization of these times will be just a very sad remembrance and not a never ending curse.  But, what about the horrific epidemic of promising young evangelical pastors who burst onto the scene and rise like meteors only to fall into disaster and suicide?  Will this also be recalled as a tragic period of darkness from which the conservative church learned much and recovered? Or, will our reflexive need to not explore, to explain away and to quickly move on all serve to guarantee that a century from now sensational clergy loss will continue to corrode and undo the work of the church?

At least (five) high profile young pastors of whom I’m aware have taken their lives during these past twelve months alone.  As painful as this topic is to discuss I believe that we absolutely must force ourselves to do so if we’re ever understand what’s going on here.  We shouldn’t be trying to address this crisis until we better understand all the cultural, characterological, spiritual, and biological issues which influence it.  After the space shuttle Challenger disaster stunned the world in 1986 all shuttle flights were grounded until the underlying cause (defective “o-rings” in the right side solid rocket booster) could be understood and resolved.  Seven astronauts died unnecessarily in that incident.  Almost that many young pastors (or maybe more) have died in this past year.  And, the many opinions about why don’t add up to any real comprehension which could guide us towards life saving solutions.  It just seems unconscionable to continue on as usual amid the carnage.

So, how might we begin the quest to understand and solve this crisis with an inquiry as focused and complete as the one which solved the riddle of the Challenger?

We know that NASA went back and reviewed multiple video tapes and reams of computer data to understand what went wrong to cause the Challenger catastrophe.  Similarly, I think we might go back and review data we have on the pastors, the churches they founded, the people who surrounded them, the impacts they had on the culture and the impacts the culture had on them.  Is there anything we can learn from their character styles, their gifts, their liabilities?

Here let me make the disclaimer that I’m a Christian physician, someone with a great grief and concern about this issue, and not an investigative reporter or a Lee Strobel.  But, I’ve worked with missionaries and pastors for the last thirty plus years.  I’ve consulted with and worked beside other pastors and professionals with supportive roles for a number of these young church planting pastors.  As such, I offer here observations and viewpoints which are an amalgam of my own direct experiences and those of others doing this same work.

From this view there emerges a number of trends which stand out, especially in retrospection.

The first is that they tend to be both extremely bright and charismatic. This shouldn’t be surprising as we look at the huge successes these young pastors enjoyed right out of the gate.  They were often non-conformists whose giftedness permitted them to avoid the usual post-seminary trek up the ecclesiastical ladder.  They seem to have had a knack for understanding how to connect with younger people who were suspicious of the traditional church.  They launched churches from spaces rented from schools, warehouses and theaters.  Trading traditional suits and clerical robes for skinny jeans and untucked shirts, using plugged in musicians in place of choirs, and displaying virtuoso homiletic skills these pastors began rapidly adding new members even as large traditional churches were losing them.  Constantly outgrowing existing spaces meant planting new churches and finding new subordinate pastors who could mimic the founder’s formula for success (and stay subordinate).  The seminaries and older clergy and theologians had no choice but wonder about this phenomenal new trend even when they had reservations.  The Christian media was all over it and even the secular media had to periodically report on these seismic changes rocking the Protestant landscape.

The hugely popular performance based ministries of these young upstarts caused many admirers to refer to them as rock stars.  Such a reference now seems poignantly fitting because riding a towering crest of intoxicating success just like secular rock stars leaves little time or inclination for introspection and for dealing with one’s demons and the brokenness with which one entered ministry.

Both professionally and through the reports of others I’m aware of a number of young pastors who decline multiple opportunities to do the hard work of probing their wounds, exploring and finding the words to express previously hidden grief’s and attendant feelings, learning to become truly open and vulnerable, and grappling with primal shame.  As a prescribing psychiatrist I’ve sometimes found them eager to embrace a mood diagnosis and a prescribed medication when they’re in the depths of profound depression or paralyzed by an episode of panic which seemed (to them) to have come out of nowhere.  But, almost invariably, as soon as the chosen treatment and a new round of external successes had them on their feet again they were ready to abandon not just the medication treating their mood disorder but also any other therapeutic interventions to which they’d agreed to back when they were in the valley of the shadow.  And, consistently, these now “healed” pastors never came in to discuss with me in therapeutic partnership the pros and cons of terminating treatment.  No, sadly enough, it was usually predictable that they would just one day not show up for a scheduled appointment.  Inquiring texts to them would be ignored and I could often detect their dodging a conversation if we ran across each other in public.  At least until the next emotional crisis when the whole cycle would be played out again.

A recent eulogy for one of these violently deceased pastors referred to him as an “orphan”.  I suspect that an in-depth psychological post-mortem on these now lost to us pastors would reveal that there’s a common theme of parental loss, neglect or absence.  I also believe we’d find a universal confusion about what mature masculinity might look like.  As a result, through no fault of their own, these young orphaned men had no choice but to show up as culturally pleasing caricatures of masculinity.  In my and others’ experiences these guys have tended to be caught between asking for and rejecting older male presence and guidance in their journeys.  So, there seems to be this pattern of getting close to but never embracing the deep work required to heal their psychological, spiritual, or masculine selves.

The late Dallas Willard is credited with a quote that seems most applicable here: “God, pleased don’t grant me more power than my character can handle.”

I feel sure that Willard would append to ‘power’ the intoxicating effects of abundant success and adulation.  Because, it seems likely that another etiological “o-ring” for these pastors who rose so majestically into the morning sky only to erupt into heart wrenching spirals of smoke and wreckage was the combustible presence of serial successes and the clamor of adoration.  I imagine that for a rock star standing in the blast wave of deafening applause it’s extremely difficult to attend to offers of advice and input whether it’s from peers, (true) elders, or the Holy Spirit.

And, ever aware of what sells to a ravenous, ever growing group of followers, the book publishers appear to eagerly court these young pastors for books on almost any topic.  The pressure these companies can bring to bear on a hot new writer can’t be over stated.  Deadlines have to be met and new books have to be hyped with constantly updated posts on multiple social media platforms.  All the while the young pastor, who received no business training in seminary, is now trying to be the CEO for a multimillion dollar multi-site organization and burning too much midnight oil because of the drivenness to every week show up with another home run sermon.  I posit that behind the trademark hip, cool, and affable stage presence there too often lies emotional exhaustion and a lurking insecurity hidden not only from us but also from the young pastor himself.

Space flight has always been a deeply inspiring yet complicated and risky undertaking.  And so is church planting.  As with every other human undertaking, we enhance the chances for future success to the degree to which we first prepare for the planned endeavor; then dissect, come to understand, and thereby learn from the inescapable missteps; and seek out with a willingness to seriously utilize input which catalyzes the growth and safety of the enterprise.

And here’s a final observation from the perspective of this layman and caregiver to wounded pastors.  I find myself wondering if our seminaries are placing more emphasis on the Great Commission to go out and preach than they are on the other commission to “Tend my sheep”.  Sheep tending, or shepherding, is messy and un-applauded work.  In earthly terms, it doesn’t pay well, doesn’t sell many books, and is a poor road to notoriety.  In fact, unless the shepherd also gives us a new translation of the Bible as Eugene Peterson did, only a relative few will ever know him/her compared to, say, a rock star.  But, after four decades of working with wounded and suffering people I am crystal clear that the world is full of billions of people hungering to be known, to feel the presence of enduring compassion, and to experience the benefits which come only from the hard, unsung work of loving.

This is a broken world into which we’ve each been born and wounded. There’s a very real, gloves off, life-and-death cage fight here between the darkness and the light.  And, the darkness is stealing unfed, disillusioned lambs both left and right.  We so desperately need shepherds, ordained and not, to not just go out to find lost lambs but to nurse them, not just on the Word, but also with the hard work of continuing presence and non-judgmental loving.  And, both my heart and my experience have convinced me that the shepherds can also be in deep need of finding, binding, feeding and, yes, protecting.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters the mentoring devil explains to his apprentice that he shouldn’t waste too much time tempting the individual sheep away from the light because if he can score a single shepherd then he’s captured countless sheep in just one stroke.  Don’t we have enough evidence already that successful pastors have targets on their backs?  Therefore, I challenge us as a church to come around our pastors to form a protective circle of love which provides nurturance spiritually, emotionally and physically.  By spiritually I mean ceaseless praying, honest encouragement, and provisions for straight forward and non-shaming accountability by someone respected, trusted and older who is in no fashion dependent on the pastor.  Emotionally means that we take for granted that our pastors, like ourselves, arrive with their share of brokenness; that we’re expectant that (and will be supportive of) they’re embarking on a journey of self discovery and healing for as long as it takes (which is usually years).  And, by physically I’m not referring to gym memberships, although I’m a huge supporter of such things.  No, I mean the awareness that as part of being embodied souls we have biologies which regularly get broken just as our minds and souls can.  Genetic proclivities, childhood and adult trauma and loss, and the stresses of everyday living can pull our pastors into handicapping levels of anxiety or mood disorders which can run the spectrum from nagging to paralyzing.

In 2020 we have lots of common grace in the form of excellent pharmaceuticals and other interventions for the alleviation of these kinds of affliction.  Sadly, of the many pastors who eagerly quote the depressed and wounded Nouwen from the pulpit, few it turns out are willing to copy his authenticity and themselves accept treatment for these treatable illnesses.  It takes a huge capacity for denial to not grasp that pastors who take their own lives are, among other issues, struggling with unmanaged mood disorders.

In summation, to pastors around the world I’d like to be so bold as to offer some proddings and encouragements both professional and paternal:

  • Be crystal clear about how you’re measuring success in your calling.
  • If you haven’t already, embark on a personal quest to understand how your genetic makeup, gifting, liabilities, traumas, losses, successes, role models, and life experiences have all come together to make you who you are today. Begin to grapple with the issues which hold you back from who God put you here to be.
  • Grasp that each and every last one of us is struggling with some kind of addiction. If it’s not alcohol or pornography it may also be work, success, or approval. Also seek to grasp for the sake of others and yourself the mutually sustaining blind-loop of shame and addiction.
  • Embrace the challenge to hear and be curious about opinions which differ from your own. Your progress here will be an energy saver for you and others, enhance the quality of everyone’s work product, and make you less lonely as a pastor.
  • Practice the art of admitting you’re wrong because being wrong is a recurring and inescapable part of being a human. The ability to honestly own error demonstrates maturity, self confidence, and the absence of narcissism.
  • Similarly, practice the relationally restorative art of asking for and giving of forgiveness. We have to assume that our Lord had good reason for making it central in the prayer he gave to his disciples.
  • It’s proven that mammals lower than ourselves are able experience anxiety and depression. So do humans like ourselves who are subjected to a much larger array of losses, insults, depravations and challenges.  Therefore, determine now to be the first to have true empathy for and to demonstrate sincere compassion for such suffering in your family members, your staff, your parishioners, and yourself.
  • Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankel, was the one who so simply stated that despair occurs in the presence of suffering devoid of meaning (D=S-M).  Sudden overwhelming or unremitting despair in His creatures who comprehend both their free will and their mortality can go on to decide to end their own lives in suicide. Be committed to the detection and treatment of depression, the alleviation of suffering where possible, the confrontation of despair through the compassionate application of the spiritual, and the willingness to overcome the awkwardness of inquiring about suicidal thoughts and plans.
  • Be willing to love and embrace the brokenness in yourself with the same grace and non-judgmental acceptance with which you’re able to show to others in theirs. In fact, your own modeling of this will alleviate more human suffering than you’ll ever believe.
  • Practice authenticity and the integrity of true vulnerability, not affected vulnerability more spoken from the pulpit than lived among one’s family and peers. Because, I’m convinced that this capacity is central to our becoming more and more real such that we may one day, a la C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, become real enough to tolerate the overwhelming reality of heaven.

Bob Stewart























What the Church Needs is Men Without Fear

Here’s a question I got recently:  Why has the Church become so feminized?

The young guy who asked me was earnest and sincere, and quite tuned in to conversations in the blogosphere on all things masculine in the church – men’s “roles,” authority issues, and more.  He’d come to embrace a certain narrative that goes something like this:  Until recent decades the church was run by men.  Liberalism and feminism contributed to the rise of women, the softening of biblical authority, and the feminization of the church.  Today, the church is more highly populated by women, but men of integrity must show renewed commitment to biblical authority and biblical roles, which will bring men back to church and bring Gospel renewal.  He said to me, “Chuck, what I think the church needs is men without fear, men willing to stand for truth.”

I respectfully disagree with the entire narrative.  In fact, though I respect the sincerity of this opinion, I think it’s been embraced by young men who don’t know much theology or church history, and who are often led by older men who, for whatever reason, actually live in tremendous fear.  Let me explain with an alternative narrative.

What I believe the Bible teaches is that Yahweh, unlike the hyper-masculine gods of the ancient near east, dares to break the rules and enters in – vulnerably – to the pain and sin of humanity.  From Genesis 3, God acts in grace, knitting clothing for his ashamed children.  Time and again, he breaks through the barrier, vulnerably pledging faithfulness against all odds, amidst a people who continually break trust.  In covenant, Yahweh pledges to take the ultimate hit instead of landing the final blow.  Over and again, Yahweh says, “Yet, I will return to my people and forgive their sins and restore them,” a knockout blow to a theology of violence, of sacrifice, of entitled position and role.

In Jesus, the character of God becomes crystal clear.  Jesus sacrificed glory to become human.  He became a man…

…but a man who’d be the laughingstock to most ‘manly men’ of his day.  Sure, some point to Jesus over-turning the temple tables as the example of the masculine God.  But this is silly, really.  If you want to psychologize the text, see it as an example of his extraordinary range of emotion.  If you want to make Jesus into a UFC fighter and a tough guy, you’d have to read the Gospels with an agenda, an agenda that Jesus would overturn with equal passion.

One story, however, tells the Grand Story of the Incarnation – Luke 15 – the prodigal son (and as some say, the prodigal ‘father’) passage.  It’s a story about a man who so loves his son that he is willing to look like a woman to save him.  Read that line again.  This isn’t me saying this.  Read the many great books of Kenneth Bailey, a writer I was first exposed to when his text was assigned in seminary at RTS Orlando.  A middle eastern scholar, Bailey lifts the veil, showing that what the father did only a mother in that day would do.  In running to his son, he brought shame to himself.  In exposing his legs, he looked like a woman.  In his display of raw emotion, he’d be cast better as the over-emotional female than the stoic male.  This, I suggest, is God’s character revealed in the Incarnation.

This is a man without fear, a man who revealed the heart of masculinity (and even more, humanity).  The heart of it is this – intimacy.

Intimacy.  The word in the Latin – without fear, an invitation into the innermost space.  Jesus does what God had been doing over and again – relentlessly pursuing, and breaking even his own rules in the process.  The vulnerable God who, in Luke 15, is portrayed with feminine qualities, angers those obsessed with roles and authority – the Pharisees.  How this is missed today puzzles me, but even more – grieves me.  While some Christian men seem obsessed with several debatable Pauline texts, they miss the core – Christ himself – the intimate God, the vulnerable God, the God who moves toward rather than pulling away.  This makes our silly debates about feminization and roles quite small.  With perspective, we’d keep the main thing the main thing – vulnerably living in and participating in the life of Christ in this world.

Here is the kind of church I fear – the church that moves away, that church that puts up walls, the church that doesn’t demonstrate vulnerable intimacy.  This is the hyper-masculine church, a church that is made in the image of the ancient near eastern gods that mocked Yahweh, and the Pharisees that crucified Jesus, and even today hyper-masculine men who erect walls, proclaim authority and role, and miss the point.

Now, to get back to the opening story – the young man has the narrative all wrong.  Two significant features, I believe, show the church’s commitment to what I’d call incarnational vulnerability – mission and contemplation.

Mission.  The first centuries of the church show the commitment to be a church engaged in mission.  Prior to Constantine and the advent of Christendom, the church fought only the crucial theological battles – Trinity, hypostatic union – and gave its effort to living in mission, saving young baby girls aborted by Roman families, moving into plague-infested territory, bridging ethnic divides, treating slaves and servants with dignity.  The church-in-mission got the attention of emperors and historians of the day, in oft-quoted writings which lauded Christians for their generosity and care.  Even the Cappadocian Fathers imagined the Trinity to be in perichoretic relationship – Father, Son, and Spirit in vulnerable, intimate relationship, giving and receiving eternally.  No better picture of mission can be imagined.  God’s icons (image-bearers) were bearers of divine intimacy – vulnerably giving and receiving.

Contemplation – a juridical understanding of salvation is just part of the picture.  Justification, though seemingly central for some many, was only one metaphor for human salvation.  For centuries, union with God was central, even so for Calvin.  Union implies a vulnerable, intimate connection between God and man, a mystical connection, that Augustine, Calvin, St. John of the Cross, Athanasius, Samuel Rutherford, and many more didn’t shy away from. (Read Robert Webber’s The Divine Embrace).  Yes, Rutherford was a Westminster Divine, whose erotic language of union with Christ in his Letters brought criticism.  In fact, as a professor at RTS Orlando, I received criticism for quoting him, as some said I was promoting a feminized faith!  But men…Rutherford wrote Lex Rex, and was a Westminster hero!  For him, union meant intimate love, being kissed by Christ, being held by Christ, being pressed on by Christ!  His words cause the manly man to shiver – “Oh, the many pounds of His love under which I am sweetly pressed!” (see full text below)

Mission and contemplation thus became the heartbeat of orthodoxy, a movement of vulnerable intimacy, becoming like Christ and living without fear.

Men, I have a challenge for you.  Don’t settle for the silly, cheap, and fearful polarizations created by Christian leaders who use words like authority, feminization, and role in a way that disconnects from the narrative – the Christ narrative.  Don’t buy the accusations of liberal.  Don’t see it as moving away from truth.  Don’t trust the contention that the biblical text isn’t central, for some.  The cruciform narrative, in fact, is far more central, far more important, and far more revealing – particularly of a God who defies all cultural manifestations of god, whether in the form of the ancient near east (ANE) or the ultimate fighting championship (UFC).

Men…pray this…If this is the man I am to become, may I be given the grace to lift my robe and run, like the prodigal father, with vulnerability and without fear, into the brokenness of the world – even as the onlookers jeer.

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from Samuel Rutherford’s letters – “O that I should ever kiss such a fair, fair, fair face as Christ’s!  But I dare not refuse to be loved. There is nothing within me, that is the cause for Him to look upon me and love me. God never gained anything from me. His love cost me nothing. Oh, the many pounds of His love under which I am sweetly pressed!”


Men, Women, and the Way of the Cross

Some pastors have been asking me to blog a bit on my thoughts re: complementarianism, egalitarianism, male/female roles, why it’s become such a polarizing topic, and perhaps even why it’s become a new litmus test of fidelity to the Gospel.  I’m hesitant to address such a big subject.  It’s so polarizing.  And it’s sad to me.  I find myself sinking into a depression when I consider some of nonsense that goes on, and how it divides a church that ought to be a witness in its unity.  But, here are some thoughts.   I’ll be highlighting some themes I think are worth considering.  Below are some of the questions I get, and some of the responses I’ve given through email exchanges, etc.  It’s a longer post, but broken into smaller chunks of Q & A.

Why do you think churches are losing men?  And don’t you believe that men are returning to some churches because they are re-asserting a man’s proper authority in the church?

I’m no church historian and I’ve heard this case made, but I have a very different take.  I think the early church was filled with courageous men who saw in Jesus the way of real manhood, for lack of a better way of saying it, the way of masculine vulnerability.  Now, some men ran for the hills.  This wasn’t the militant Divine Warrior they expected.  It was the need for power and authority that got them in trouble!  Look at Peter – he needed it too much.  So, Jesus defined the terms in John 21 for him – when you’re young, you’ll pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but as you mature you’ll realize your vulnerability and dependence.  Men left the church because they no longer had this grand vision of cruciform risk-taking and suffering servanthood for the sake of witness to the way of Christ in the world to live into.  I assume this began post-Constantine, when they gained power.  Now, this attracted a certain kind of man, but I wouldn’t call this man “Christ-like.”  Power and authority became way too important to the post-Constantinian church leader.  And I think it is way too important for some male pastors today, to the point that it’s really destroying the witness of the church to a crucified God and a cruciform, self-sacrificial people.  We’re obsessed with debates about power and authority!  How sad!  Jesus was never about claiming position, but relinquished position to meet people “from below” – from a place of servanthood and vulnerability.

If real masculinity isn’t the issue, why do so many men flock to John Eldredge books, or Christian men’s conferences, or churches with hardline positions on male roles?

I definitely think masculinity is an important issue, and I’m not wanting to blur male/female distinctions for some asexual theology.  Now, I think men are hungry for some sort of vision for their lives.  We’ve largely lost the male initiatory traditions in the West, where men were sent out at an appropriate age into the wilderness to learn key things – that they’re vulnerable, that failure is inevitable, that the world is bigger than them, that they’ll need to plug into a larger source for real strength!  Sadly, men today are hungry for strength, but find a substitute in power/authority.  Eldredge got this much right.  In Wild at Heart, he tapped into this primal hunger.  But he didn’t build the narrative around Jesus, I’d say.  In my mind, the focus became on finding your “wild” self…a necessary part of the journey…but not enough.  Maybe I missing Eldredge on this…I haven’t read the entire Eldredge “canon.”  I’d reframe it by saying that ultimately, we “find ourselves” as our lives become caught up in the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus…as the paschal mystery is formed inside of us.  And while I think you can find get a taste of this as you escape into solitude in wild places, more often than not we find it in the wild, risky world of relationship – where we’re compelled to deal with our own hearts.

I don’t hear this cruciform message in the Christian male pep talks today.  I see a lot of testosterone energy, but not as much Jesus.  There is too much chatter about finding yourself in your proper male headship (back to authority and power again!), as if headship (kephale) is about claiming power.  It’s precisely about sacrificing, suffering, relinquishing.  Dictators claim power.  Jesus relinquished it.  But we worship Jesus…not because he claimed it and demanded it, but because he served us, suffered for us, chose the way down.  Always be wary of pastors, male or female, who over-speak about authority, who don’t seem secure enough to be insecure (as Richard Rohr says), who need to “defend” the rightness of their positions.  You’ll know them by their love, not their defense of authority.

The older I get, the more I want to give away power, the less I want or need to be up front, the more I’m hesitant to write blogs like this.  I just want to be out doing it, living it, loving…that’s where I’m at my most “cruciform” self.  All the rest is usually my false self, my egocentric need to feel powerful, to be listened to, to be needed.  God help me.

How do you understand the proper roles of men and women?

First, I think the question is problematic.  My best sense is that the idea of “roles” is relatively new in the theological landscape (and in mid-20th century), and that role language is actually rooted in bad Trinitarian theology (the heresy of eternal subordinationism).  But my bigger concern is that roles become a conversation of who leads and who doesn’t, who can speak and who can’t, who has authority and who doesn’t.  It’s an exercise in missing the point.  This was never the agenda of Jesus.  He ticked off the religious “authorities” (always be careful when he hear that word!) precisely because he empowered the powerless – women, outsiders, the broken.  I think we’ve completely misread Paul on this stuff.  We’ve missed how he empowered women in the early church too, and we’ve focused on a few “exceptions” that served, I believe, as pastoral advice for specific temporal situations.  How are we different than the Pharisees on this?  We’ve missed the forest for the trees.  We’ve somehow come to believe that it’s “biblical faithfulness” to put women in their place when Jesus came freeing women, empowering outsiders.  I see a parallel in all our talk about the heretics “out there” – the Muslims, the Mormons, the liberals.  How have we come this far?  Men don’t need to be worried about their roles.  We need to be concerned about whether or not we’re living the cruciform life of Jesus, suffering and serving.  When this becomes about ra-ra “be-a-man” spirituality, the church has lost its witness, and the world laughs at us (and I think they ought to…)

What guidance do you give men who need a vision for their lives?

This is tough, because we’ve largely lost the initiatory tradition.  We’ve even turned baptism into a sweet ceremony instead of a very somber “death” ceremony (we go down into the waters in order to die, and we’re raised through Jesus). Classically, men needed the initiation precisely because they were in the one-up position, always prone to abuse power.  The wise tribal elders knew that the boy needed to leave home (sound like Jesus? You must leave home…mother, brother, sister) and enter the wilderness, in order to discover just how small you are.  The Israelites took this journey.  Jesus took it.  But today, we’re creating narcissistic young boys who don’t know their limitations, their smallness in God’s big world.  They feel power as they play video games, watch UFC fights, and get told, “You can do anything and be anything you want when you grow up.”  It’s deadly.  Young men have no other path than to become angry, violent.  They don’t know what to do with their strength.  I see it all the time in therapy.  Somehow, we’ve got to find ways to invite young men into the larger story of the Gospel, the suffering servant, the way of the Cross.  We need to find meaningful ways of showing them their smallness, their vulnerability, the inevitability of failure, or else they’ll find out the hard way when they get older.  By the way, I’m convinced this is why “Gospel language” is so prevalent today.  We’re dying for someone to tell us we don’t need to perform, that we can fail, that the story doesn’t revolve around us.  But this is a message that needs solid and meaningful rituals around it.  If we can re-discover the power of the sacraments and tell this story well, maybe that’s a start.


The Real Adventure for Men

Part of what I’ve been addressing in this series on masculinity is what I view as a cultural movement which, in response to feminism, attempted to re-ignite a conversation on masculinity.  I’ve referred to the pivotal work of Robert Bly, a Harvard poet whose distaste with radical feminism led him to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and the great archetypal stories of the hero, the warrior, and the wildman.  Bly’s work was followed up by many others like Keen, Gilmore, Hicks, Levant, and Gillette and Moore, writers interested in incorporating the mythic initiatory tradition to emasculated men in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Alongside this movement came Christians who grabbed hold of the banner of masculinity for the sake of restoring male integrity in what was deemed to be a Church Impotent and feminized, a church that (if left to the hormonal wiles of women) might fall into the pits of quietism, bridal mysticism, and universalism (which may explain Rob Bell’s recent thinking!) I’m not convinced of this threat, nor am I convinced the Christian men’s cultural movement has sustainability in the future.

Now, as someone who has very much appreciated the insights of Campbell, Jung, Bly, and others, I’m convinced there is something very important to be explored here.  8 or 9 years back, a book called Mothers, Sons, and Lovers seemed to be on every man’s reading list at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, where I was then teaching.  I really enjoyed much of the book, and found its application of the initiatory traditions unearthed by Campbell, Bly and others to be insightful.  But as many therapeutic ways go, even ancient initiatory-therapeutic ways, I found it leading to a kind of individualism, a solitary healing journey that could be done apart from participation in the cruciform life of Jesus.  And it, too, seemed to move the ball down the court, but fail to score.

Part of what I see needing to be done by theologians, psychologists, liturgists, and sociologists, all in community, is thoughtful work around the Christian tradition (and particularly the Christian liturgical tradition) as it relates to male spiritual growth and maturity.  I think we’d find many interesting things to explore:

1.  Much of the initiatory tradition as it relates to men contributes valuable themes which, I believe, can be found, and re-animated, in the very Christian story and liturgical tradition in which we find ourselves.  Themes on the male initiatory way such as leaving home, stepping into a story larger than yourself, experiencing failure, understanding that you’re not in control, and more have clear connections to the Christian Gospel.  Interestingly, though, much of what I read in Christian ‘masculinity’ literature often fails to envision strength in and through weakness, a Gospel-reality which cannot be minimized or denied.

2.  Following Christ, as witnessed in the lives of the disciples, meant entering into a Beatitude life (Matt. 5).  I think that the significance of this early teaching moment (right after Jesus calls the first disciples and engages the public) should not be missed.  These young disciples were invited into an adventure which would include poverty of spirit, mourning, wilderness hunger and thirst, mercy, peacemaking, and persecution.  Men’s retreats which over-emphasize what I call “ra-ra masculinity” (lots of male super-charged energy which sometimes includes roaring, paintballing, and more…yes, seriously) miss the Beatitude emphasis.

3.  Following Christ means engaging the cruciform life, a life of self-sacrificial commitment.  When I think about real adventure, I imagine the courageous men and women of the early church, sacrificing for the sake of the budding mission, rescuing the outcasts of society, defending the poor, relinquishing status and sharing wealth and sacrificing powerfully for the community.  Sometimes, the male vision I see in recent men’s literature seems more Emersonian, the lone male in search of Walden Pond, entering the wilderness to find himself.  To be sure, journeying into solitude is extraordinary important.  But I’d argue that a man will “find himself” by losing himself, crucified to his own self-serving agenda for the sake of others…and not, necessarily, on the back of a horse or repelling down a cliff.

4.  This notion of the feminization of the church is, to me, a dramatic over-reaction motivated by fear.  Men ought to be championing the women.  Simply look to the ministry of Jesus as the most radically progressive approach to women in its time.  The strong emphasis of the New Testament is on men self-sacrificially laying down their lives (agendas, manipulation, fear, and so much more) for women (see Eph. 5).  One Christianity Today writer refers to some of the latest manifestations of hyper-masculine rhetoric, including the very popular Mark Driscoll, whose public comments seems to draw much attention.  I’m persuaded, though, that fear drives a kind of ‘musculine’ agenda which often comes at a price, and does not privilege women and fight for their dignity, as Jesus did, but seems to speak more of their inherent weakness, their tendencies to draw the church toward liberal theology, and their role limitations.  My friend Caroline James offers a necessary corrective.

5.  We would be significantly helped by exploring genuinely unique manifestations of male spiritual character, as diverse as Bernard of Clarivaux, St. John of the Cross, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Samuel Rutherford, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, and J.I. Packer.  Some of these men, I fear, would fit Driscoll’s caricature of the limp-wristed sissifed male without adequate biceps.  (Not that I’ve recently felt J.I. Packer’s biceps…I’m sure they are sufficient…nay, spectacular!)

6.  We would benefit from an exploration of uniquely Christian rituals of initiation and incorporation, asking ourselves whether or not reviving these practices might not get us down the court on these things.  Let’s explore the role of catechesis and baptism, the liturgical year and its invitation to discipleship, the participation in Christ’s upside-down strength-in-weakness through Holy Communion, and the real call of blessing (benediction) and sending which call us out and into the Empire, to subvert and to redeem.  This is an adventure worth engaging.

7.  Finally, I think we’d do well to significantly re-think what we mean by “men’s ministry.”  Much of what I’ve seen done is more reflective of a recent cultural phenomenon than really good thinking on what men need.  Men I talk with are hungry for something more.  I’ve spoken at a good number of men’s retreats, and I’m simply not convinced the ‘sports-event, get ’em revved, now confess your porn addiction’ kind of stuff that is sustainable.  And, that’s not to minimize at all how much men have been helped…jolted out of complacency, engaged in relationship, confronted with addiction.  I’m interested in thinking about what’s next.

Maybe you have some thoughts, whether you agree or disagree…

C.S. Lewis, Bob Newhart, Masturbation, and Those Damned Longings

If I had a nickel for every Christian guy that came to me for counsel about masturbation when I lived back in Orlando, I’d not need this pastoral housing benefit I’ll probably be losing pretty soon…

We, Christians, are great at pointing out bad behaviors.  We’re experts at diagnosis.  But our remedies often stink.  We’ll pile on guilt or give Gospel quick-fixes or raise expectations of some long-sought-after victorious Christian life.  But very seldom do we tell them to dive deeper into the very thing that repulses them.

Enter C.S. Lewis, the great 20th century writer and literary critic, who early in his faith (and probably later, too) wrestled with that great demon of masturbation, and lived to talk about it!  To a good friend (and presumed fellow masturbator), Lewis writes:

Lying on that study sofa…I had sensations which you can imagine.  And at once I knew that the Enemy would take advantage of the vague longings and tendernesses to try and make me believe later on that he had the fulfillment that I really wanted.  So I balked him by letting the longings go even deeper and turning my mind to the One, the real object of all desire, which (you know my view) is what we are really wanting in all wants…

As a Christian counselor, I’ve interacted with many Christian counselors who believe that our desires are the problem. This, in itself, is a much longer post worth writing.  In short, desire takes us into our deepest hunger, our original goodness, our truest selves.  Jesus was no prude.  He didn’t live to avoid wine, women, and song.  In fact, Jesus steps into the epicenter of desire, and points to its real origin.  In Jesus, we hear, “What you’re really looking for is…”

What many Christians offer to those who lust and masturbate and dream bad dreams is a kind of Biblicized version of Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” therapy session, one of my favorite moments of MadTV.  Watch it here.  We don’t deal with the underlying hunger and thirst.  We deal with what we perceive to be a sinful behavior.  And our call to “repent of our idols and believe the Gospel” can often be forms of sin-management.  Even David Powlison, a well-respected biblical counselor, steps in to this awful morass in his oft-forwarded article, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”.  He’s trying hard not to step into the same pit of behavior-and-sin management, but in his critique of “love-need psychology” he misses the point, saying, “But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.”

This kind of pessimistic hyper-Calvinism does not find its origins in Augustine or Calvin, or its more recent expression in C.S. Lewis.  It owes its origins more to the wormology of Puritanism more than anything else.  It devalues humanity to the point where it seems as if God cannot even look upon us – no-good, sinful creatures that we are.  I’m not buying it.  Gerald May comes much closer to a biblical understanding of humanity when he writes:

There is a desire within each of us,
in the deep center of ourselves
that we call our heart.
We were born with it,
it is never completely satisfied,
and it never dies.
We are often unaware of it,
but it is always awake.

It is the Human desire for Love.
Every person in this Earth yearns to love,
to be loved, to know love.
Our true identity, our reason for being
is to be found in this desire.

Sitting on his lonely couch, C.S. Lewis recognized his deeper longing for love.  He didn’t rack himself with even more guilt, saying, “Even my longing for love is an idol!  I’ll repent of that!”  In his longing, he found an inner navigation system reorienting him to God, the origin and object of his deepest desires.  The self-satisfaction of masturbation, though a temporary pleasure, couldn’t compare.  His heart expanded in love, and he found himself raptured by God’s love.

Lewis stands in the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and St. John of the Cross, and even anticipates what Gerald May writes, as he affirms the original goodness of the human heart, putting the doctrine of Creation where it rightly belongs…before the doctrine of the Fall.  He affirms the double-knowledge of Calvin, that looking within really leads us to look to God.  Calvin, you see, was influenced by the humanists in the best of ways, and his redeemed humanism ought to save us from the awful introspective and idol-driven dehumanizing of those who’d question every desire.

Longing is our lifeline to God.  Desire, if followed, leads us to the love that will satisfy.  So, don’t beat yourself up with too-much idol-talk.  And, curiously, you might even stop beating off.  (Yes, I said it…don’t beat me!) 

Musculinity, Emasculation, and the Masculine Soul : Part 3 : Royalty

There is much more we could say about the relational aspect of the image of God, but a second and no less important aspect is critical.  In his wonderful work called The Liberating Image, Richard Middleton suggests that royalty is a primary expression of the image.  He sees the image as “the royal function or office of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, given authorized power to share in God’s rule over the earth’s resources and creatures.”  Before the distortion of rule and the abuse of power, men and women, together, were given the royal ambassadorship (Gen. 1:28-30).  In a world that sends muddled messages (men are perverts, men are power hungry, men are abusive, men are addictive, men are distant, men are emotionless), a man’s identity is regal, dignified, and purposeful.

When the younger son returns in Luke 15, the father races to him in order to bless him.  Theirs is a relational reunion.  But it is so much more.  The father restores the son’s dignity.  He gives him the family ring, signifying his royal sonship.  He robes him, covering his old and tattered garments, his wounds, his nakedness, his palpable signs of undignity.  He puts sandals on his feet.  He organizes a celebration feast fit for royal dignitaries.  It’s all very regal, and it’s all very important in the symbolic world of Scripture.  Original hearers would have noted the resonances with the royal image in Genesis 1.  This should have brought joy to all who heard it.

I had a client whose family modeled life after the hit 80’s and 90’s television show Married with Children.  His Dad was much like Al Bundy, a bumbling idiot who lived for sex, beer, and television.  Emerging into his 20’s, my client was unsure of what real masculinity looks like.  He’s internalized something very real, however.  He is unstable, unsure, even bumbling, at least in his own estimation.  He critiques his every move.  He lives mired in self-contempt.  In front of women, he clams up and becomes immobilized, believing he has nothing at all to offer.

At his church, he’s told that self-esteem is not language that can be found in the Bible.  He’s managed to find a church where all of his worst fears are confirmed.  He’s reminded each week that he’s a sinner, that there is nothing good in him.  The God he knows does not lavish love and bestow dignity.  The God he knows barely tolerates him.  He’s depressed.  And confused.  And has no sense, at all, of what it means to be a man.

Men like this work 8-6, and can’t wait for Fridays.  They live the curse in Gen. 3, as they work not out of some inherent sense of dignity or royal ambassadorship in the world, but out of survival.  They numb to and cope with the pain of life in any number of ways, some which are stereotypical (sex, alcohol, tv) and some not often discussed (suicidality, eating disorders, gender confusion).  Or perhaps they can’t work.  Self-sabotage plays itself out in constant job changes or instability.  Or maybe they’re addicted to work, using it as a drug, unable to separate themselves from their accomplishments.  No matter how it plays, it’s a different story than the one God intended, a different trajectory from that of royal dignitary to the King of Kings.

What does this mean for men?  At a societal level, it means that part of what it means to see the Kingdom come and God’s will be done is seen in men becoming who they are – ambassadors of the King.  We see ourselves caught up in a larger mission, a mission to see the reign of God expand in the world in which we live.  This begins where we live, work, and play.  It begins in our homes and our offices, on the playground and in the pub.  It means that no action we can take is somehow neutral, unaffected by the King’s reign in our hearts and in our world.  Our “faithful presence” in the world, to borrow J.D. Hunter’s language, manifests in lives of fruitfulness, flourishing, integrity, justice, wisdom, and love.  Our strength, as men, becomes a source of blessing, not aggression or violence.  Our vulnerability manifests itself in self-surrender, not passivity or avoidance.

I, for one, do not prefer this vision for men growing out of an ancient initiatory tradition manifesting today in the warrior man, championed by those who call men to their primitive wildness.  There is an element of truth in this.  But God bestows his image to men and women, and its particular royal manifestation in a man invites not wild, outdoorsy masculinity, but purposeful, engaged, and missionally-driven masculinity.  Whether in the cubicle or in the wild, men are called in a particular way.  You don’t find masculinity outside of yourself, but the Spirit reveals it as something born in you, bestowed to you in the original image.  At a societal level, it could be extraordinary if men regained a sense of missional passion as royal ambassadors of the King.

At a personal level, this bestowed identity counters the narratives we learned in our homes growing up, or on the playground, or even in our subcultures.  When a man asks, “Who am I?” his answer is generally derived from a combination of influences, not least from his father and other key relationships in his life.  How masculinity was defined in your family or culture, at some level, influences your answer to the question, “Who am I?”  I’m a nobody.  I’m a failure.  I’m a breadwinner.  I’m a success.  I’m a sissy.  I’m a lawyer.  I’m gay.  I’m wealthy. No matter the answer, it does not touch the deeper identity as a child of the King, a royal benefactor called to bless, to love, to steward, to suffer.  As men, we’re ruled by a variety of cultural scripts which we often bless as normative, in large part, because it is what our traditions taught us to be.  But there is something deeper, our truest humanity anchored in God’s image, seeing restoration and renewal as we participate in the life of God through the Spirit.  The most truly human person ever to live, Jesus himself, embodied this royal life as God’s kingly Son sent in love and for mission.  He invites us to embody it in our time and place today, whether in a cubicle or on a cliff.

Musculinity, Emasculation, and the Masculine Soul : Part 2 : Relationship

Picking up from last week’s first blog in this series, at least one trajectory among biblical scholars in recent times is to understand the image as primarily relational.  Indeed, it is not the case that men are from Mars and women from Venus, one task-driven and the other relationally-driven.  If the image is bestowed to both men and women, then both are relational.  In this expression of the image, it is understood that we, as men, cannot fully enjoy our unique expression of true humanity apart from relationship.

For this, I take as a starting point the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, but not for obvious reasons.  In fact, I see one of its potential applications as a story of redeemed male relationality.  The great New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who has lived in the Middle East for many years, argues that the story is not merely about a wayward younger son, but a relationally inept older son.  Bailey contends that at multiple points in the story, the older son failed to step into his relational responsibility as the older son, neglecting his duty to protect his father, to engage his brother, to provide hospitality, and ultimately to enter in to his brother’s homecoming.  A relationally avoidant man, his failure only magnifies his father’s stunning grace toward the younger son.  The father defies cultural custom, leaving his seat of judgment and running (as only a woman would have done in that day!) to restore the relationship with his son.  This may be the most startling example anyone can find of the so-called ‘feminization’ of the faith.

You see, men are designed for relationship. What it means to be a man-in-relationship is to live out his unique maleness for the sake of God and others, to bless God and others, to know and be known, to love and be loved.  Contrary to the hyper-masculine storylines which situate real men in the wild, men do not ‘find themselves’ in the fierce terrain of the wilderness, among snakes and scorpions.  They find themselves in the fierce terrain of relationship, where real fear and self-protective hiding emerges.  Over the years, I’ve found that a man can feel very strong with a gun in his hand, or in a competitive sport, or with a task to complete.  But fear emerges when he is called to move toward his spouse, or into a difficult relationship, or into the tender souls of his children.  This is wilderness territory.

This requires a wonderfully beautiful and complex interplay of strength and vulnerability, a uniquely male embodiment of it. Think of pair’s figure skating, where the strong male lifts his partner into the air as they both spin, an act that does not make one better than the other, but which demonstrates the unique blessing of each.  That kind of beauty could not happen without both partners intimately engaged, trusting and risking together.  It’s an act that demonstrates male strength.  But, within it we also see male vulnerability.  It’s a vulnerability which surrenders for the sake of another.

You will find real strength in a man as he surrenders himself for another (see Eph. 5), as he sacrifices for another, as he blesses another, as he risks humiliation (as the father did in Luke 15) for another, as he intervenes for another.  You’ll find male strength as he enters the frightening wild of relationship.  Men, in fact, cannot enjoy the full blessing of their masculinity without entering into relationship.

Now, this does not mean, as certain family-focused organizations have told us, that marriage is normative?  Marriage is a uniquely joyous expression of relationship.  But it’s not the only expression.  Men were created to enjoy and be enjoyed in relationship, to know and to be known.  Human beings can find profound connection in relationship outside of marriage.  One of the great experiences of my life was in college, enjoying the camaraderie of the same roommates in my Junior and Senior year.  We became brothers.  And so the research goes, as well, that men (and indeed, all human beings) have a better chance of surviving together in pairs than alone.  Studies drawn out of the holocaust and from wartime indicate that together we survive better than apart.  Attachment theorists, sociologists, and even biologists have shown through different lenses that men thrive in relationship.

Lisa Graham McMinn, a Wheaton College sociologist, explores gender scripts in her wonderful book Sexuality and Holy Longing. She contends that the hyper-masculine script that pictures manhood in terms of John Wayne or James Bond ultimately distorts masculinity, picturing men as self-sufficient, isolated individuals defined by their sexual prowess rather than their relational engagement.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, men and women often worked alongside one another, raised children together, and shared leadership together.  This vision neither neuters human beings, nor requires some kind of hyper-masculinity.  That said, it’s nearly impossible to take one cultural moment and show it as normative, as demonstrating ideal human relating.  We’ll always find distortions, results of the curse of humanity alongside displays of the glory of God’s image.

McMinn’s point, however, is that men cannot be reduced to their wildness, their sexuality, or to their proclivity toward sport.  As I’ve counseled men over the years struggling with sexual addiction, I’ve found this to be true.  Sexual addiction, as most theorists today will tell you, is not primarily about sex.  Indeed, the desire at the core of sexual acting-out is a longing for relational connection, for intimacy, for oneness.  The ultimate act of sexual violence seen in rape and child abuse is ultimately a reflection of radical relational disintegration, of profound dehumanization.  These men no longer see human beings.  Their capacity to relate empathetically is radically broken.

Though men sexualize intimacy for biological, cultural, psychological, and sociological reasons, we are created, at our core, to be connected intimately in a way that cannot be reduced to an orgasm.  Indeed, studies show that men in vulnerable relationships with other men are far less likely to struggle with sexual addictions than men who are alone and isolated.  Men, in the end, are not sexual because they can have an orgasm.  A man’s sexuality leads him into vulnerability, into relationship, into co-creation.  Healthy sexuality for a man does not emerge from becoming more ‘wild’, in some abstract sense, but from engaging relationally.

I had a friend who spent a summer in the wild.  He went, as he said, to “find his heart.”  He didn’t find it.  He learned a lot of ranching, about mountain-climbing, about fly-fishing, all good things.  But his most poignant experience was on the plane, returning home, when he had the opportunity to engage and be engaged at a relational level with a complete stranger.  Something came alive within him at 50,000 feet and in a relationship that was not present while fly-fishing.  In fact, I’d say that if he would have enjoyed fly-fishing with a friend, he might have noticed the difference.

But we’re afraid.  Adam says, “I was naked, so I hid,” and shame is introduced into the cosmic storyline.  Creation affirms relationship.  But the Fall introduces isolation, shame, fear, and self-protection.  And men know this very well.  Gen. 3:16 describes a part of the woman’s curse, saying, “Your desire will be for your husband but he will rule over you.”  In male shame and insecurity, we will respond often with either a diminished and neutered masculinity or a hyper-masculine, exaggerated maleness, both resulting in misdirected rule and/or domination.  Sadly, much theology regarding gender relations and roles has been built on the theology of the Fall rather than the theology of Creation.  Warped relating, in the end, dehumanizes, devalues, and ultimately diminishes the fullness of masculinity.  It doesn’t set the trajectory for redeemed masculinity.

If Kenneth Bailey is right, Luke 15 paints the picture of redeemed relating, men who demonstrate strength and vulnerability.  The father’s humiliation in running toward the son, a picture of Christ’s Incarnation, is something only a woman would have done in that culture and context.  Indeed, if Bailey is right, we have a lot to learn from women about this kind of strength in vulnerability.  That’s something critics of the ‘feminized church’ might balk at.

Do you want to be a wild man?  Don’t look for your answer in the mountains.  You’ll find it in the person sitting right in front of you, the person who calls you to risk, to vulnerability, to a fierce resolve that refuses to settle for cheap imitations of ‘the real man.’

Next Blog :: The second aspect of God’s image in men :: Royalty

Musculinity, Emasculation and the Masculine Soul: Part 1

God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen. 1:27

I received an email recently asking why I don’t quote or recommend the author John Eldredge more often.  Though I’ve enjoyed and benefited from much of what John has written, I’ve been hesitant to endorse his ‘constructive’ view of masculinity.  To be sure, it’s an attempt at a corrective, as John reaches down off his cliff to pull the emasculated, “nice” Christian out of the abyss of genderless asexuality.  I get that.  And I agree with John when he writes:

The problem with men, we are told, is that they don’t know how to keep their promises, be spiritual leaders, talk to their wives or raise their children.  But, if they will try real hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming…a nice guy. That’s what we hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys.

Yet, Eldredge proposes a different model that I find to be a stretch when thinking about biblical masculinity.  It’s man as wilderness warrior.  It’s Donny Deskjob finding himself depressed and dominated in his relationships moving to the Denver mountains in order to find his inner Wild man, a noble nod to the ancient rituals of initiation, but a distracting divergence from a biblical theology of manhood, which finds God not in the wild but descending on man by his Spirit right where he is.  We’ll get more into the strengths and weaknesses of male initiation in a future installment, as well as the radical revolution of God’s locale in the sending of the Spirit.

Then, there are things too ridiculous to mention, but we must anyway.  In his great Christianity Today article, Brandon O’Brien analyzes the men’s movement, talking about the organization GodMen, who provide men with an experience of masculinity which includes “videos of karate fights, car chases, and songs like “Grow a Pair!” whose lyrics read:

We’ve been beaten down
Feminized by the culture crowd
No more nice guy, timid and ashamed …
Grab a sword, don’t be scared
Be a man, grow a pair!

And then there are the critics of an increasingly feminized church, pastors and theologians who find that the slippery slope of liberalism follows the women.  The rhetoric is usually strong and dramatic, calling “dudes” to follow a Warrior Jesus.  What I find particularly troubling is the public use of language describing men as “sissies” or “limp-wristed” or “effiminate” or “queer,” language that has no place coming from pastors or theologians who follow a Messiah who was found, most often, among the outcasts of society.  Having counseled many men who wrestle with their gender identity, I’ve seen the power of this kind of mocking, shaming, and emasculating language, a power to bring a man to the brink of suicide.

I remember talking to a man at a men’s retreat.  The language of “real men” permeated the weekend – “real men are rugged,” “real men are competitive,” “real men won’t shy away from a fight.”  The testosterone ran high that weekend.  If you didn’t play paintball or throw a football with a tight spiral, you were shyly watching and wondering if God had made a mistake with you.  So it was with Randall, who contemplated leaving because he didn’t fit in.  Randall was gay, and there was no place for him in this group of real men.  Randall would fight suicide, in large part, because he was all alone, a stranger among Christians, a movement that began among the marginalized.

This clarion call to men, however, is not new, nor is it an evangelical Christian phenomenon.  Bly, Keen, Gilmore, Hicks, Levant, Gillette and Moore, and others have been challenging men to inhabit the ancient ways of the warrior for three decades.  Prior to that, however, the Muscular Christians of the English Victorian Era brought about radical changes to public schools, and men’s secret societies such as the Masons and Oddfellows.  A public school manual envisioned men “going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other.” Men were defined by their inherent superiority, by their work, by their larger contributions to society, and in contrast to the clear weaknesses of women, evidenced in their inferiority in sport and in physical combat.  Curiously, the real man was defined as the hunter, the adventurer, and the national patriot, categories with extraordinary resonance in the Christian men’s movement today.

I call this version of masculinity musculinity. After doing some extensive research in 2006 while working on my Ph.D. in Psychology, I saw the modern (re)emergence of wilderness masculinity in many, many writings.  For those skeptics who’d point the finger at prominent evangelicals in the men’s movement, the seminal thinking was done by those outside the camp, pioneered in large part by esteemed mythologist Joseph Campbell and the Harvard poet and scholar Robert Bly.  Musclinity was not necessary a theologically conservative invention, but a deliberate movement among prominent intellectuals to expose the futility of a feminized culture.  For those fundamentalist Christians who continually lament cultural accommodation, I’d challenge them to consider their intellectual influences.

That said, there is an equal and opposite extreme.  On the one side, we find the musculine man (no, not the Michelen man).  On the other, we find the emasculated man.  Of course, the old-fashioned notion of emasculation refers to the removal of the male genitalia, something the GodMen, as we’ve seen, clearly disagree with when they sing “Grow a pair.”  In the world of sociology, this is called ‘feminization’.  But we all know what this really means.  Many men tell stories of being called a sissy or a fag.  Homosexual men fear coming out because of the torment they’d experience.  A man I knew confided in me at a men’s retreat that he’d dare not avoid participation in the paintball wars and locker room conversation for fear of being exposed as effeminate.  The emasculated man looks at John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and James Bond and wonders, “Why am I so different?”  It’s a lonely place for him, but it’s also a place where many men reside.

The emasculated man, I’d argue, has had his genitalia cut off, figuratively at least.  No doubt, he continues to use his primary sexual apparatus in procreation.  But, he is embarrassed to be a man, at one level.  But, this existential reality leads some to call for an an end to all gender talk, spurring an intellectual movement among Christians and non-Christians alike for androgyny.  In a recent CNN Beliefnet blog, a writer advocated for an androgynous future, a genderless culture where the uniqueness of male and female fades into the background, a distant remnant of an earlier and less progressive time.

At a recent conference on a Christian view of marriage, several couples were frustrated by the speaker’s distinctions between men and women.  “We’re human,” one man commented.  “Gender distinctions only serve to forward an agenda which prioritizes a majority over a minority.”  And his life served to demonstrate this lack of distinction.  He works and she works.  He cooks and she cooks.  And perhaps eventually, with scientific advances, he’ll bear children and she’ll bear children.  In today’s parlance, he’s a metrosexual.  He’s a trendy, sophisticated, culturally-advanced human.  And he hopes that one day he’ll live in a genderless society, a sign of true progress.

But I worry that his passion for being a genderless human clouds his identity as a unique man.  This neutered identity is not, in fact, more human, but ultimately less human.  It robs him of becoming a wonderfully particular manifestation of God’s image.  He pushes back, though, citing the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 in his oft-cited “there is no longer slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male and female,” God’s vision of androgyny.  But Paul not so much has in mind the erasing of male and female identity as much as the distorted stereo-typing that prevented full inclusion, full equality, full humanity.     

Genesis 1:27 reads, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  The fullness of God is caught up, in some mysterious way, in both male and female, living out their unique identities in the dance of relationship.  The emasculated man, at some level, fears his masculinity, though.  He has tucked his head in the sand, withdrawn into his shell, cut off his genitalia.  While the musculine male displays a kind of hyper-masculinity, the emasculated man denies his masculinity.  And both extremes are distortions, robbing a male of both the strength and vulnerability which enables him to live out his call and identity uniquely in the world.

In the next post, I’ll offer a picture of man as the image of God – as both relational and royal.  This, I’ll suggest, gets at the heart of masculinity.  No, not the wilderness man.  No, not the genderless human.  Man…relational and royal.  Stay tuned.